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Wuxia and Jianghu — Fairy Tale of the Adult World

Wuxia is a mesmerizing genre within Chinese literature that goes beyond the realms of the ordinary.

Within the pages of Wuxia tales, narratives unfurl like intricate scrolls, revealing the extraordinary lives of martial heroes who navigate the complicated world of Jianghu.

These stories are more than mere accounts of physical prowess; they encapsulate the virtues of courage, the pursuit of honor, the indomitable spirit that surges within the characters, and the code of chivalry that shapes their destinies.

In this realm where ordinary boundaries blur, Wuxia not only entertains but also imparts timeless lessons about resilience, morality, and the unwavering pursuit of justice. 

wuxia and jianghu

What is Wuxia?


Wuxia (武侠) is a form of Chinese literature regarding adventurous and chivalrous stories of martial heroes in Jianghu. 


Wu encompasses qualities such as bravery, courage, martial arts, and all the skills related to combat.

Xia includes virtuous heroes and their moral values.

Based on these thrilling stories, Wuxia novels, films, dramas, and games have been extensively produced in recent decades, establishing Wuxia as an important element of popular culture in China.

What is Jianghu?


Jianghu (江湖) represents a world in ancient Chinese culture.


Jianghu is the realm where hermits and civilians reside, a complete departure from the ruling class, which includes royals, officials, and political authorities.

Jianghu constitutes a society of chivalrous martial artists who conduct themselves and engage in battles freely, championing their values and morals while pursuing justice and freedom without constraints.

martial arts in wuxia

Origin and History of Wuxia


Since the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC), when the suzerain Zhou Empire kept losing authority and other vassal states kept competing over hegemony, a group of people evolved out of the gradually loosened social structure. 


They were, initially called You Xia (like Knights Errant), heroes with excellent martial arts skills who always chose promises over their lives and could be killed but never be defeated. 


In history, they had assisted Lord Xinling (? — 243 BC) in stealing the commander's seal to deploy troops and save the Zhao State. 


Two of the most famous tried assassinating kings to support their masters. 


One was Zhuan Zhu, who successfully assassinated King Liao of Wu in 515 BC. He was killed by the king's guards soon, but his master was later enthroned to be King Helv of Wu. 

Spear of Fuchai, Son of the King Helv of Wu

Spear of Fuchai, Son of the King Helv of Wu — Hubei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Another was Jing Ke, who promised the crown prince of Yan State to assassinate the mighty King of Qin when the Qin's army kept annexing other states.


But he failed and was killed, and Yan State was punished by General Wang Jian very soon, whom the angry King of Qin sent, also respected as Qin Shi Huang.


Since then, great scholars and poets praised their spirits, bravery, courage, and faithfulness in the successive dynasties, such as Sima Qian (about 145 BC — ?) and Li Bai (701 — 762). 


Stories of people like them also have been created and popularized in poems and novels, which formed the entire world of Wuxia.

Characteristics of Wuxia


  • Wuxia, from the beginning, is about the civilian class in real life.


Whoever follows the Wuxia spirit would be respected as the hero or Xia, with no specific ceremonies, rules, or social status requirements.  


  • Most Wuxia stories and heroes have strong nationalist spirits.


  • Wuxia novels are usually set in specific historical backgrounds, mostly an era with an incapable government or full of wars. 


  • Compared to Realism literature, Wuxia is more focused on praising the good sides of humanity, such as brotherhood, pure romance, faith, big love for humankind, etc. 


  • The endings of Wuxia generally represent the rule that good and evil will always be rewarded, even though countless difficulties and suffering are in the middle. 


  • No matter how much they accomplished, Heroes in Wuxia would always end up living in Jianghu seclusively instead of serving the royals. 


  • Wuxia heroes live outside of hierarchy and law, fight for justice and protect good people, and always choose freedom over power and money. 

wuxia heroes

What Are Wuxia Spirits?


  • Braveness and benevolence.

  • To rebel against injustice and to fight against abusive power, such as corrupt officials and bullies.

  • To help the weak and poor and to protect the country and people. 

  • Altruistically do good deeds to maintain the justice and moral codes of Jianghu in their beliefs, not for financial rewards or fame. 

  • Value promises and righteous reputation over their lives, money, and power. 

  • Be loyal to their beliefs and freedom.

  • Doctrines and moral codes of Mohism, an important ancient philosophical school in ancient China.

Well Trained and Brave Swordsman of Mohism

Cultural Elements in Wuxia Novels


Generally, in a good Wuxia novel, one of the most influential literary genres, many cultural elements would be included, such as history, local customs, traditional Chinese medicine, Yin Yang and Five Elements, geology, cuisines, poetry, literature, art, music, and so on. 

List of Famous Wuxia Novels

The Bearded Warrior or Qiu Ranke Zhuan


The Bearded Warrior, or Qiu Ranke Zhuan, written by Du Guangting (850 — 933), is one of the most popular Wuxia stories among ancient novels about Three Heroes during the chaotic era of the transition from Sui to Tang Dynasties.


Qiu Ranke, an ambitious, rich, and brave martial artist, encountered and befriended two heroes one day.


Hongfu was the daughter of a former general but fell low as a courtesan serving in a powerful statesman's mansion after her father was assassinated. One day, after seeing an intelligent young man who gave an insightful speech, she escaped from the mansion and decided to be with this man forever.


This young man named Li Jing (571 — 649) was moved by Hongfu and fell in love with her.

Beautiful, Smart, and Wuxia Heroic Hongfu

Beautiful, Smart, and Wuxia Heroic Hongfu, Drawn by Zhijiantang.

They highly appreciated each other's talent, ambition, and courage. Together, they traveled around, helped others, and were respected as the "Three Heroes of the Wind and Dust".


Later, they met, were impressed by Li Shimin (599 — 649), and decided to serve him.


Qiu Ranke gave all his money to his friends and built a small kingdom on a remote border.


Li Jing became one of the most excellent marshals in the history of China, who contributed significantly to assisting Li Shimin in unifying the nation and building the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907), and lived a happy life with his love Hongfu.

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty

Unearthed Food (Dumplings and Desserts) and Utensils from the Tang Dynasty — National Museum of China (Photo by Kanjianji)

Nie Yinniang and Xie Xiao'e


Legend of Nie Yinniang written by Pei Xing (around 860), and Story of Xie Xiao'e written by Li Gongzuo (778 — 848), are short novels about female martial artists.


Nie Yinniang was taken away when she was a kid by a mysterious woman who taught her powerful fighting skills and commanded her to assassinate some evil officials.


Five years later, Nie Yinniang was sent back to her parents and got married.


When she was paid to assassinate General Liu Changyi (752 — 813), she was impressed by the general's talent, sincerity, and great heart, so she decided to support him and protect him from later assassins.

Female Wuxia Martial Artist Nie Yinniang

Female Wuxia Martial Artist Nie Yinniang, Picture from Douye Photo. 

Xie Xiao'e lost her entire family and friends during a trip when bandits murdered her father, husband, and friends, robbed their money, and threw their servants into the river.


Xie Xiao'e got hurt as well, but a kind person saved her.


After years of planning, she gained the bandits' trust, collected enough evidence, killed their leader murdered her father and husband before, and put the rest of them in prison.


She was later pardoned, became a Buddhist nun, and disappeared from the public.

Wuxia hero Xie Xiao'e

Some famous classics that were written before the end of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912), such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms or San Guo Yan Yi, by Luo Guanzhong (about 1330 — 1400), Water Margin or Shui Hu Zhuan, by Shi Nai'an (1296 — 1370), are usually regarded as historical classic novels instead of Wuxia stories, even though including many heroes with Xia spirit.


Click to Read More about Classic Chinese Novels

Today's Wuxia genre, usually long series novels, began with the publishing of The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants or San Xia Wu Yi in 1897.

The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants or San Xia Wu Yi 


The Seven Heroes and Five Gallants, or San Xia Wu Yi, written by Shi Yukun and published in 1879, is the first long Wuxia novel in China. 


Some heroes protected and assisted the upright and fearless politician Bao Zheng (999 — 1062) in the trial of a series of cases and brought justice to civilians. 


Together, with their intelligence and bravery, they defeated powerful ministers, rooted out strong bullies, evicted evil bandits, and brought civilians safe and wealthy lives. 

fights in wuxia novel

Twin of Brothers or Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan

Twin of Brothers or Da Tang Shuang Long Zhuan, written by Huang Yi, is about the self-growth and accomplishments of two heroes.

In the late Sui Dynasty (581 — 618), rebellious wars started all over the nation, and civilians lived in chaos and poverty. 

Kou Zhong and Xu Ziling are two orphans who grew up on the street, close as brothers. 

They obtained Kung Fu Cheats that made them martial arts masters, gradually organized their army, and kept expanding and winning. 

To bring people a peaceful world, they complied with their long-term enemy, the marshal and Prince of Qin Li Shimin (599 — 649), and later assisted him in initiating the Xuanwumen Incident. 

After having succeeded, Li Shimin was enthroned as Emperor Taizong of Tang, and these two brothers left and lived seclusive lives. 

Sculpture Stone Horses in Tang Tai Zong's Mausoleum (Zhao Ling), War Horses of His Six Important Wars.

Stone Horses in Emperor Li Shimin's Mausoleum (Zhao Ling), War Horses of His Six Important Wars.
The Last Two Are In Penn Museum, The Rest Are in the Forest of Stone Steles Museum of Xi'an.

Legend of the Great Tang Dynasty Hero or Da Tang You Xia Zhuan


Legend of the Great Tang Dynasty Hero or Da Tang You Xia Zhuan, written by Liang Yusheng, is about stories of heroes during the tragic An-Shi Rebellion (755 — 763). 


They saved friends from enemies, volunteered to assist great General Zhang Xun (708 — 757) in the epic Battle of Suiyang, and sacrificed heroically to protect their country and people. 

wuxia heroes protecting the city

Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils or Tian Long Ba Bu


Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, or Tian Long Ba Bu, written by Jin Yong (one of the most established modern Wuxia writers), is a masterpiece about the struggle against destiny and the pursuit and discussion of humanity.


The three main characters are a hero from the Northern Song Dynasty (960 — 1127) who later became a minister of the Liao Dynasty (907 — 1125), a royal prince of the Dali Kingdom (937 — 1253), and a monk that later married a princess of Western Xia Dynasty (1038 — 1127), became sincere friends after a series of encounters and fights side by side.


They tried their best to fight against and conquer their inner struggles, whether to serve the kingdom they love or genetically belong to, pursue dreams or take responsibility, stick to rules, or love. 


After difficult struggles, they all found inner peace and stopped a big war initiated by the Liao Kingdom, under the expanse of a vast tragic loss.  

Ceremonial Jade Weapon (Gu Duo) of the Kingdom Liao

Ceremonial Jade Weapon (Gu Duo) of the Liao Kingdom — Aohan Prehistory Museum in Inner Mongolia (Photo by Dongmaiying)

The Legend of the Condor Heroes or She Diao Ying Xiong Zhuan


The Legend of the Condor Heroes, or She Diao Ying Xiong Zhuan, written by Jin Yong, is about a boy growing into a great marshal. 


Guo Jing saved and befriended a boy from the royal clan of Mongols and assisted Genghis Khan  (1162 — 1227) in establishing the Mongol Empire. 


Later, he came to Southern Song Dynasty (1127 — 1279), met the love of his life, and was revenged for his father. 


When Genghis Khan commanded him to lead the army and invade Southern Song, he refused and escaped. 


He and his love lived in seclusion and built a family together, but they returned to protect an important military site named Xiangyang when the Mongol Empire sent troops there. 

Ancient Gate and Citywall of Xiangyang.

Ancient Gate and Citywall of Xiangyang.

The Wanderer Chronicles or Ping Zong Xia Ying Lu


The Wanderer Chronicles, or Ping Zong Xia Ying Lu, written by Liang Yusheng, is a story about family feuds and the nation's Righteousness.


The main character, Zhang Danfeng, was a descendant of a general defeated by Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of the Ming Dynasty (1328 — 1398). 


Zhang's entire family's mission was to search for vengeance on the royals of the Ming Empire. 


Yet, when the destructive Tumu Crisis happened in 1449, in which the Ming Empire lost its main force, the emperor Zhu Qizhen got captured, and the enemy was marching toward Ming's capital city, Zhang Danfeng didn't take this opportunity to revenge, even he got big chances to succeed.


Instead, he donated all the treasures he found, assisted Chancellor Yu Qian in defeating the enemy's invasion, and arranged to welcome the emperor back. 


Afterward, Zhang and his love lived a happy life in seclusion. 

Firearm (Huo Chong) Produced in 1450 to Protect Ming

Firearm (Huo Chong) Produced During this Defensive War — National Museum of China

The Deer and the Cauldron or Lu Ding Ji


The Deer and the Cauldron, or The Duke of Mount Deer, or Lu Ding Ji, written by Jin Yong, is a story about a young boy born and raised in a brothel and his involvement in important historical events of the early Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912). 


Unlike other Wuxia novels, the main character Wei Xiaobao knows nothing about martial art but street smartness. 


He saved a brave man, who later agreed to take him to the capital. 


Wei Xiaobao was accidentally sent to the royal palace as a eunuch, met and befriended the young Kangxi Emperor (1654 — 1722), and assisted the emperor in successfully evicting a powerful regent. 

His braveness gained the emperor's trust and the respect of a big folk organization trying to overthrow the emperor's reign and recover the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644). 


Wei Xiaobao dealt with these hostile forces and significantly contributed to the emperor and the organization.


Meanwhile, he struggled to be loyal to his organization and the late Ming Empire or to his emperor friend, who rewarded him with paramount power and money. 


Later, the Kangxi Emperor learned about his involvement in this rebellious organization and commanded him to perish it, while the other side asked him to assassinate the emperor. 


Wei Xiaobao escaped to the south and lived in seclusion with his seven beautiful wives. 

Part of "Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour" (Kangxi Nan Xun Tu) that Describes Kangxi Emperor's Visit in Jiangsu Province

Part of "Kangxi Emperor's Southern Inspection Tour" (Kangxi Nan Xun Tu) that Describes Kangxi Emperor's Visit in Jiangsu Province, Painted by Wang Hui and Yang Jin in 1691 to 1693 — Palace Museum

Sentimental Swordsman, Ruthless Sword or Duoqing Jianke Wuqing Jian


Sentimental Swordsman, Ruthless Sword, or Duoqing Jianke Wuqing Jian, written by Gu Long, is about an altruistic hero and his life of completing others. 


Li Xunhuan, an upright official with exceptional martial skills, was supplanted and quitted from politics. 


After seeing his savior Long, a good friend who has been suffering lovesickness toward his fiancé, Li Xunhuan starts to act like a horrible person and behaves distant, making his fiancé choose Long. 

Li Xunhuan gave most of his money to this newly wedded couple and left. 


But Long realized that his wife was still in love with Li Xunhuan, and his intense jealousy caused a series of vengeance activities, forcing Li to return to Jianghu from seclusion. 

swordsman in wuxia novel

The Smiling, Proud Wanderer or Xiao Ao Jianghu


The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, or Xiao Ao Jianghu, written by Jin Yong, is a story of an outsider hero in a chaotic Jianghu. 


Linghu Chong, an orphan raised by an upright master, gained excellent martial art skills but had his heart broken by his first love. 


Later, he found that in this Jianghu, many upright organizations have dark secrets and committed unspeakable sins, including his master, whom he had worshipped his entire life. 


After being evicted by his master, Linghu Chong felt he belonged nowhere. During this period, he met and fell in love with a girl from the demonic organization.


He realized that upright or demonic is all about people, about humanity. 


Darkness and betrayal come out of the lust for power and money, and the bright sides are about great love, sincere friendship, and the pursuit of peace and justice.


A few years later, people that pursued power by all means were either defeated or passed away; Linghu Chong and his love became leaders of the two sides of Jianghu, the upright and the demonic organizations. 


Under their commands, people in Jianghu made peace and stopped all hostilities, and this couple then lived in seclusion, far away from Jianghu and power. 

wuxia novel heroes in seclusion
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